High court recognizes false light claim

Privacy | Feature | June 6, 2007

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   OHIO   ·   Privacy   ·   June 6, 2007

High court recognizes false light claim

  • The state's highest court said plaintiffs in Ohio can sue for placing them in a false light before the public.

June 6, 2007  ·   The Ohio Supreme Court said today that litigants can sue for placing them in a false light before the public, a type of invasion of privacy claim that has divided courts over its very existence and worried media organizations that say these lawsuits chill speech.

To sue for false light, a plaintiff must prove that the media or another defendant publicizes facts that place a plaintiff in a "false light" before the public in a manner that would be "highly offensive to a reasonable person."

Recognizing the First Amendment concerns, some state high courts have said the false light claim does not exist, citing its similarity to libel. Unlike libel, where journalists can use the truth of the allegedly damaging statement as a defense, false light claims can proceed even if nothing incorrect has been stated.

The Ohio Supreme Court in today's 5-2 decision said the claim does now exist in Ohio courts, saying that a "majority of jurisdictions in the United States have recognized" false light as a valid claim and that "the First Amendment concerns that some courts have raised in regard to false-light claims are overblown."

The court said that to sue in Ohio, a plaintiff must show that the defendant "had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed."

This "actual malice" standard is the same test that public figures must meet to sue for libel. Private figures in libel suits must meet a lower standard, showing that the defendant was negligent.

In adopting the actual malice standard for false light claims brought by both public and private figures, the court said it was recognizing that a statement that was not libelous was less likely to "be a red flag for editors and checked for accuracy."

Writing for the majority, Justice Paul E. Pfeifer said the "world has changed" since previous decisions where courts declined to allow false light lawsuits, specifically a 1984 North Carolina Supreme Court decision.

At that time, "Greener's law – 'Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel' – still applied," Pfeifer wrote. "Today, thanks to the accessibility of the Internet, the barriers to generating publicity are slight, and the ethical standards regarding the acceptability of certain discourse have been lowered. As the ability to do harm has grown, so must the law's ability to protect the innocent."

Two justices dissented from the decision, saying the state Supreme Court should not have reviewed the case.

The high court's decision reversed a lower court's ruling in the case, which involved a dispute between feuding neighbors who had made various allegations in lawsuits against each other. In one claim, Robert and Katherine Welling said neighbor Lauri Weinfeld had invaded their privacy by distributing handbills at the Welling children's schools and near Robert Welling's workplace asking for tips about anyone Weinfeld claimed had thrown a rock through the window of a party center she owned next to her home.

A jury agreed that Weinfeld had invaded the couple's privacy. On appeal, a state intermediate court ordered a new trial but removed the issue of a false light claim because the state's highest court had not recognized its existence. The Wellings appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

(Welling v. Weinfeld) -- RG

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